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Category: BoboMama’s Travel Adventure Blogs

Home Sweet Home?

Home Sweet Home?

Days abroad: 306     Miles covered: 22,448     Countries lived in: 6     Favourite thing about being back: feeling safe and settled in our own home     Worst thing about being back: traffic jams; the weather     What I am loving: no longer feeling ill at ease in a female body; fast, reliable internet     What I am grateful for: having had the courage to go away and the courage to return; my beautiful friends    What I miss most: Asian food     Items travelled with that were never used: mosquito nets, travel hairdryer

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 17: 23rd July 2017, Cambridge, UK 

So it’s been nearly three weeks since our return and I still don’t feel like we ever left. I kept putting off this final round-up blog in case things should suddenly change, but they haven’t! It’s really quite odd. We seem to have just slipped back into the life that was waiting for us patiently during our absence.

And it’s a perfect fit. At least physically if not mentally. In that it is actually relatively easy to resume a ‘home routine’ that you’ve had for years, even if it was disrupted by a spontaneous adventure lasting 10 months. Perhaps it really helped that we eased our way back into English culture via the European stepping stones of Greece and Spain. (Which was the plan.) And it definitely helps that I have been very mindful of our potential decompression period: social situations have been measured (family first) as well as staggered (only two visits to school). We only left the house once during our first week. We are taking things very slowly.

Or maybe being back is still exciting enough to hold my attention and the shock has merely been delayed? Because it does feel exciting! I am still finding great pleasure in how sheltered I feel by living within four walls that actually belong to me. There is still joy in wearing clothes that I haven’t worn for ages, in eating foods that I have been craving, in listening to Radio 4, in the constantly changing weather. And there is joy too behind the relief in not having to think or be constantly alert (albeit unconsciously) to new experiences. Because these take up so much mental bandwidth and whilst they are no doubt exhilarating they are also quietly exhausting.

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Photo caption: the glorious coastline of Catalunia, my grandfather’s birthplace…

Maybe this excitement will pass and I will get restless again and crave the sense of freedom and adventure that has sustained us throughout the past year. But I’m not feeling that yet. Right now I feel safe and secure, comfortable and loved. And welcome! So many hugs; so many warm smiles! It’s been awesome to feel as though we’ve come home to our nest, that we belong, that we are no longer The Other (even if the sense of one’s own ‘culture’ encompasses such a wide range of differences).

Mentally however there have been changes. Big ones. But none that have provoked a sense of ‘readjustment’. Indeed, the changes we have witnessed in ourselves have almost made the term redundant. Because the biggest development has been in our ability to adapt. To go with the flow. To be at ease wherever we are.

The driving factor behind our year away was “a desire to break free of the matrix and our orderly, domestic life; to be spontaneous and step into the unknown; to see what else life had in store for us”. It was all about subtraction: about removing the redundant cultural, social and ancestral chaff to reveal our true authentic selves; to be free of outside influence.

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Photo caption: ‘our’ beach with its medieval castle (top left); fisherman’s huts (top right); pine forests galore (bottom left); Mediterranean doorway (bottom right) 

So did we succeed? Yes! It is so much easier to reflect upon who you really are and what is truly important to you when you have the time to do it and the distance from your own ‘stuff’ to be able to put it into perspective. It is far less scary to get used to not wearing a certain mask when you are surrounded by total strangers. Each new day, city and country is an opportunity to re-create your reality.

And did we come back different? Definitely. How different and in which ways? Well, in a nutshell, we are so much more ourselves than we were. Speaking for myself, I am far less needy of validation from external factors and I am far less influenced by them. I am more accepting of my imperfections rather than ashamed of them and I am more open to doing things differently. I am definitely more chilled, a lot less reliant on alcohol to ‘relax’ and I finally feel ‘enough’. I am less judgmental, more tolerant, more patient and generally happier. I live much more in now – less concerned with what could have happened in the past as well as with what might happen in future – and I am far less a victim of worthless mind chatter. Not bad, eh?

I am also much more at ease with the idea of receiving, with the notion of enjoying comfort and feeling pleasure. Which has resulted in a ruthless culling of what I now see as clutter. Because my definition of what is ‘necessary’ has also changed in line with this new attitude. Is it chipped, scuffed or cracked? It goes. Not because I am being extravagant, but because holding onto things that are ‘broken’ means energetically attracting more of the same. Moreover, I want only to be surrounded by usefulness, wholeness and beauty. So if it gives me pleasure, it stays. If not, however sentimental my attachment to it, however misplaced my loyalty, however much we may have paid to store it during our absence (a lot), or however many times it may have survived former house move culls, it goes. Which means that 5 estate car-load trips to the tip (with the back seats down no less) and 4 to Oxfam later, we are living in a much leaner household than before.

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Photo caption: spending 10 months together slightly made us morph into one – here we each spontaneously wore the same colour scheme (top left); another birthday celebrated on the road complete with cake (top right), a home-made crown (bottom left) and a dinner in town (bottom right) 

The kids have changed too. Especially 4 year-old Raphael who has had to make the biggest adjustment because he can’t actually remember having ever lived in only one place. After all, we were on the move for a quarter of his entire life! So stability is still a foreign concept for him: he describes himself as someone “that changes country a lot” and he keeps asking when we are next going to the airport. Which provokes a weird, dual state in me of both pitying as well as being proud of him.

And all three have matured in intangible ways, often more noticeable to others than to ourselves. One of our new neighbours asked us if we were foreign a couple of days after we had moved in, despite the kids speaking to each other in English. He said it was something about the way they were acting – their confidence, their ease in amongst their surroundings. Another commented that they looked as though they knew how to look after themselves. And despite feeling slightly triggered by this (was there a bad mother implication in there at all?) I chose to see both observations as compliments.

The after effects of spending 10 months abroad may definitely seem a little out of place at times, and certain new habits have had to be swiftly curtailed (eating rice with hands instead of cutlery for example, as well as going out onto the street in pyjamas/underwear at 6am) but I am actively encouraging others: such as the kids’ natural curiosity and chattiness with strangers, their openness, trust and easy affection. These are a joy to witness.

 

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Photo caption: our return coincided with a street party just outside our front door! (top left); a long overdue family reunion with all my cousins and their new babies (top right); the river Cam a few minutes walk from where we live (bottom left); happy to have landed on British soil – a family portrait fresh off the plane at Stansted airport (bottom right)

So, is there anything that I missing from our time away? Yes! The heat, zipping about on a moped, Biryani rice, fertile jungles, unfamiliar bird song, local markets, having a private pool, swimming in the sea and open air yoga salas to name but a few. But not so much that I can’t wait until the Xmas holidays. When I hope to dust off the backpacks and unused mosquito nets and get back onto a plane for a new but slightly shorter adventure.

Because I’ve learnt that adventures don’t have to be mammoth undertakings. They don’t necessarily need to involve long-haul flights nor taking your kids out of school. Because spending just a couple of weeks surrounded by the unknown means that even the basics of daily life take on the allure of the exotic. And that is the key to creating an adventure: to immerse yourself in the new, in the unexpected, to stretch your sense of self, your boundaries and your values. For the benefits are immeasurably awesome.

But for now I am going to indulge in the lack of readjustment, in the surprising ease of our reintegration. I will slowly continue to appease my inner bourgeois – blueberries from Waitrose (even if they are out of season), diamond earrings and high heels, delicious European wine, riding my cargo bike – until the itch in my feet and the whisper from my inner bohemian can, once again, no longer be ignored.

And then, I shall be ready…

To see our entire, 10 month travel adventure route, click here!

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Our big, fat, Greek kiss…

Our big, fat, Greek kiss…

Ikarian highlights: beautiful sunsets, continuous ocean vistas, the islanders     What I am loving: swimming in a crystal-clear, turquoise sea     What I am struggling with: neither over-ordering nor over-eating Greek food      What I am missing: me time (school is out)     Most impressive thing about Ikaria: its energy     Most disappointing thing about Ikaria: its wine (an acquired taste)     New skill acquired: treating head lice (thank you, Goa)     Family broken/lost sunglasses tally: 13     Items packed that have still not been used: mosquito nets, hairdryer

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 16: 13th June 2017, Ikaria, Greece 

Well, we started in Greece, so we thought we’d (almost) finish in Greece. After all, with a month to kill before re-entering the rat race (our house is tenanted until the end of June), it seemed silly not to.

We hadn’t always planned a revisit. When we first found out about Goa in monsoon, we had toyed with the idea of moving elsewhere in India. The favoured option was Dharamshala – it is the hilly home of the Dalai Lama, many Goans spend the rainy season there, and I have never been to the Himalaya. But that was before I remembered that we only have one set of cold weather clothes each, that I really couldn’t face any more Indian food and that after 8 months in Asia, I was a bit tired of it (and in particular, of not feeling fully relaxed about what I could wear, when I could wear it and what was deemed ‘culturally appropriate’ behaviour for a woman).

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Photo caption: How parents deal with 23 hour’s non-stop travelling from Goa (top left); how children deal with 23 hour’s non-stop travelling from Goa (top right); the view from our room (bottom left), the view up to our room (bottom right)

So we looked further afield. Costa Rica seemed enticing, Vietnam and Ibiza too, and whilst all of them boasted what looked like awesome drop-in schools for the kids to attend until the end of the summer term, plus a beach-based lifestyle and a cool, hippy-yoga vibe, none of them offered nearby golf (which is a non-negotiable component of Bobopapa’s chosen career).

And so the itinerary for our final European leg was formalised: a second (golfless) stint on the wild and beautiful island of Ikaria, followed by nearly a month on the coast of Catalonia, Spain. Greece thus became our omega as well as our alpha. For what neater way to tie up the loose ends of our trip? And how better to test how we’d changed, if at all?

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Photo caption: beaches, mountains, river gorges and turquoise sea – Ikaria has it all…

It is said that Ikaria either kicks you or kisses you. Indeed, visitors have been known to head back to the airport shortly after their arrival. Similar to other energetic hubs, such as Bali and India, Ikaria holds a mirror up to your disowned emotional baggage. It lifts up the carpet and hides the broom. And when you’re not ready to acknowledge what is hidden underneath, it can feel a little harsh. In September we certainly felt its power. But this time, after 9 months of rummaging into our darkest recesses, we experienced a softer landing. Perhaps Ikaria decided that we had transformed enough, that we needed a rest. And so it bestowed upon us a big, fat, Greek kiss.

And here’s how it felt: my star sign of Virgo is related to the element of earth. And I am indeed extremely dependable and productive – a mistress of assessing and organizing. Unlike the dictates of this element however, I would not describe myself as orientated purely to what is real, and I frequently find it hard to feel ‘grounded’. When yoga teachers prompt their pupils to picture their roots digging deep into the centre of the earth – to feel heavy and supported by it – I often can’t. Instead, I usually feel as though I am hovering a little above the ground. In Ikaria however, it was the opposite: I literally felt as though I was being pulled downwards – solid, embodied, real!

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Photo caption: Play time! Jumping the waves (top left); sampling organic, Ikarian, goat’s milk, ice cream (top right); feeding the turtles (bottom left); exploring nature (bottom right)

The locals must sense it too. Because you just couldn’t meet more grounded people. In fact, they are absolute models of authenticity. On Ikaria, the western malaise of ‘not feeling enough’ does not exist; you are simply presented with what is and there is no effort made to embellish it. You get what you see and you either take it or leave it.

The first time round, we found this a little awkward. As is the norm back home, we were expecting to be rewarded for being who we were with a constant torrent of perhaps fake but polite niceties and gushing reassurances. And so the islander’s lack of vacant chit-chat automatically led us to think that we must be rubbing people up the wrong way. But we weren’t. We just hadn’t got it. This time, we understood that small talk simply doesn’t exist here: words are neither spoken to fill spaces nor to make people feel better about themselves. There is no need for frills because everyone is loved for who they are. Everyone and everything is enough. And we soon followed suit.

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Photo caption: our local haunts – Christos Raches (or the village that never sleeps) for home-made cakes from the women’s co-operative (top left); Anna’s Taverna (top right); Thea’s Inn (bottom left) and trying to make the most of a dodgy internet connection in order to work from home at Artemis Studios (bottom right)

Other ‘wounds’ that had been stirred up in us the first time, revealed themselves as healed. The need to be ‘in control’ for example. A formerly big manifestation of this in me, was to always favour giving over receiving. (Because the latter often felt slightly awkward and embarrassing. So far so repressed English.) Not an issue this time though! Instead, I was able to revel in the incredible generosity of Ikarians: accepting a free gift in the supermarket (without questioning how the cashier could even make a gift of something that surely wasn’t his to give?); gorging on almost daily, fresh cake deliveries from the restaurant below our room “for the children”; taking advantage, as encouraged, of the endless bounty of fresh apricots from the tree outside our room – and all this without worrying about paying for it or doing something in return. Indeed, I happily left my coffee bill unpaid for a whole 24 hours because they didn’t have the right change for me at the time, and received with a smile both the complimentary donuts at Raphael’s birthday dinner and the last minute rounding down of my room bill.

And on reflection, it is really not surprising that the Ikarians are generous. For this is just another by-product of being grounded: if you know that you are enough, just by being you, it follows that there is enough. Once you see everything through the lens of abundance, generosity flows naturally!

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Photo caption: when you’ve treated the whole family for nits and can’t get the greasy stuff out of your hair, there is nothing left but to tie it up and channel Erykah Badu (left); our second birthday on the road (right)

And so as each day passed, we were shown how much we had grown in our absence. On our first visit, we had filled our days with exploring and excursions. Caves, mountains, forests, beaches, monasteries, castles and medieval towers – all of them we had enthusiastically ticked off the list. This time, there was no list. Not just because we had seen everything there was to see, but also because we were content just being rather than doing.

I also amazed myself by witnessing how what had really bothered me last time, didn’t seem quite so important now: the derelict cars by the sides of the road, the seriously sketchy internet connection. But instead of getting riled by these things all over again, I quietly accepted the status quo and got on with things as best I could. (And those that know me well will realise just how monumental this is; before our trip, drama was pretty much my middle name.)

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Photo caption: nature’s slideshow – every sunset was slightly different but equally captivating…

And so our second leg on this quietly powerful island showed us both how we have changed, as well as how we are continuing to slow down. Not just in ourselves but also in the energetic winding up the trip. Because just as Ikaria served as a stepping stone between an easeful life in Europe and adventure backpacking in Asia, it acted as the opposite on our return. Which was deeply comforting. But also a quite odd. Because it made us feel as though we’d been in a bit of a time warp. Despite having spent two thirds of a year away, filling it with action-packed, assumption-challenging, culturally-awakening globe-trotting, the steadiness of Ikaria and its inhabitants almost made us question if we’d ever left. It seemed to make the intervening 8 months shrink into an almost imperceptible slice of time, when in fact they had felt quite the opposite.

Which is all down to the fact that Ikaria and its inhabitants don’t really ever change. Indeed, they are defined by their slow predictability. Which is precisely why we love them. Unfortunately though, this made leaving quite a challenge. And it made me realise just how much this half of the trip has felt dominated by good-byes. For as we inexorably edge nearer to our return date, our departures become more and more emotionally charged: leaving Bali was an effort, departing from India was emotional and in Ikaria, I even shed a tear.

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Ikaria Part 1 (112)

Photo caption: spot the difference – same sign (Xanthi), same girl (Xanthe), same rabbit. Who said we ever left? 

Fortunately for us, life on Ikaria will always be the same. Or at least I hope it will. Slow. Unaffected by the outside world. Untamed and natural. What changes is the way we fit in with it or not. It acts as a barometer for our internal landscape. We may always find it unchanged on our return, but each time it will present us with something different: exactly what it is that we most need to look at.

And luckily, it is still relatively unknown. For now. But shhh! Let’s keep it a secret. I’d like it to stay that way…

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Why some places resonate more than others…

Why some places resonate more than others…

Best thing about India: prescription medicines (without a prescription) for just a couple of pence!     Best thing about Goa: endless beaches and warm sea     New favourite treat: chick-pea flour, honey & cardamon balls     What I am loving: open-air yoga surrounded by nature     What I am over: power cuts and any form of dal     What I am missing: friendship

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 15: 7th May 2017, Goa, India. 

In my 20s, just before I went to India for the first time, I was told by an old-hand that it was impossible to visit without being changed in some way. (Or kissed by a prince). They were right on both accounts. India – the chaos, the colour, the noise and its people – activated what was lying dormant inside. (The kiss was a bonus). A friend posited more recently that India works you. It massages and manipulates your soul so that you emerge the other end a more spiritually-condensed version of yourself. I think this is also true. Indeed, it’s probably why I feel uncomfortable.

Our first three weeks in southern India were jam-packed with incredible sights, novel experiences, exotic tastes and warm people. And despite being tourists, we felt very much at home. But oddly, the opposite now seems to be the case: we are no longer tourists but don’t feel any more settled. In fact, I feel quite isolated. Firstly, because Goans seem a lot more guarded than other southern Indians – no spontaneous smiles here – and secondly, because despite living amongst a welcoming but close-knit group of expats – they refer to South Goa as a village – we are naturally (as six-week drop-ins), viewed as being on the outside. And I am jealous. I want to be on the inside! After 8 months on the road with no social network apart from my own family, I am starting to crave the nurturing that friendships provide.

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Photo caption: just a few of our local beaches 

Feeling ill at ease is also a result of the draining emotional transition I am forced to make every time we settle in one place. Because ‘exploring’ and ‘living’ require two very different kinds of psyche: during the former, I inevitably put up an invisible barrier between my little inner circle and the rest of the world. As the responsible adult, I create a sort of a safety bubble which allows us to be open but not too open, to relax but not to let go completely. We become totally self-sufficient emotionally: we must be our own entertainment and support system. Which isn’t easy. So I am proud of how, when travelling, I seem to take hardships in my stride. In fact, I even try my best to make every new place we stay in feel cosy, neat, familiar and safe, even if it’s for just one night. Low points endured heroically include cracked sinks held together (badly) with masking tape; holes in walls; cockroaches, ants and scorpions in our rooms; monkeys and snakes outside them; nowhere to unpack or put any of our stuff; interrupted sleep (howling dogs, trains, power cuts and parties); 41 degree heat with no air-con, as well as dirt and dust just about everywhere.

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Photo caption: cows are absolutely everywhere (top left); my open-air yoga shala (top right); the kids in front of their new school (bottom left); boho-chic retail (bottom right)

In a way, travelling is easy – you are free to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. Chores are outsourced (laundry, cooking, cleaning) and there is the constant thrill of being ‘entertained’. But the flip side is that this also demands a continually high input of adrenaline, and requires endless planning ahead and sorting out of logistics. This is even more the case if you have three small children under 7 that still need chaperoning in every physical, emotional and mental way possible. So forget any head space of your own: your thoughts, feelings and needs get pushed to the bottom of the pile. They are repressed until further notice. There is no time or room to give them the attention they deserve. And this has repercussions.

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Photo caption: Goa is actually much greener than I had imagined. And it’s not even rainy season yet! 

‘Living’ somewhere on the other hand, demands a different approach. It may seem like the easier option, when you’re jaded and exhausted by being on the road, but it can actually be even more stressful. There are just as many logistics to sort out – where to live? how to school the kids? how to get about? where to find provisions? And the responsibility that comes with each decision is even greater, because the consequences are long-term rather than temporary. When we decide to settle in one place, my tough exterior slowly melts and I suddenly remember that I am actually a princess! I realise that I was only able to put up with the hardships because there was the prospect of comfort in sight and now I absolutely must be surrounded by a degree of beauty in order to feel calm, happy and secure. Plus those emotional needs I shelved earlier finally come up to the surface for air. It can feel like a lot to deal with all at once.

This trip, we have explored three countries (Myanmar, Laos and India) and lived in four (Greece, Thailand, Bali and India) and each time, the transition from one to the other has left me feeling frustrated, anxious and confused. Frustrated because I naively expect some kind of respite as soon as we stop moving (which always takes longer than I would like), anxiety over whether we chose the right place to stay (what if we got it wrong? should we find elsewhere? how long do we give this place before deciding?) and then confusion because I am forced to sit – powerless – in the unknown. (Which, as an organising, controlling, perfectionist Virgo, is tough).

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Photo caption: Goan architecture (top and bottom left); our temple house (bottom right)

Being abroad is a bit like being inside a snow globe: when you are on the road, the snow gets all stirred up and when you stop in one place, it takes time for it to settle. And the most important thing I need to remember, is that until it does, it is as though I am wearing blinkers. It is impossible to see properly nor appreciate what is unique and special in the new.

The problem is, I did forget this fourth time round and was temporarily blinded when we arrived by what Goa was not: unlike Thailand and Bali’s relatively good-value luxury villas, rental stock here is limited and basic; private transport for hire is non-existent, shabby or unreliable (cars are decrepid and the tyre on our first scooter burst whilst driving to the garage to fix a puncture on our second) and supermarkets are grotty and basic. It has taken a while to get used to this.

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Photo caption: Saturday is market day when the streets are flooded with lots of fresh fish and fruit and veg (top); the school-run doesn’t get much better than this (bottom)

But now that we have been here for 3 weeks, I am finally beginning to see the beauty inherent in this particular corner of the world: the school the children are in is small, friendly and welcoming; the beaches nearby are deserted, clean and the water is warm; I have re-instated my regular yoga practise and once again, I have time to myself to meditate and process things. Hurrah!

Unfortunately however, there is one thing that the adjustment period won’t change. We arrived in off-season. Which is something I was aware of but seriously underestimated. I thought it meant low season – less tourists, a bit of daily rain and cheaper prices. I was wrong. Actually, it means that everyone leaves (locals and expats) and that everything closes. The school is dwindling in size by the day; most of the beach restaurants and cafes have already shut; yoga classes are winding up and local stores are disappearing alongside the diminishing tourist dollar. Then there is the weather: May is the hottest and most humid month of the year (oops) and June brings monsoon. Not just a daily rainstorm that clears the air but a torrential onslaught that tears down all impermanent structures and makes your clothes to go mouldy. Because this is India after all. And everything is extreme here.

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Photo caption: drying chillies (top left); our local beach shack restaurant (top right): turtle hatchery (bottom left); colourful Goan houses (bottom right)

So, whilst we originally thought we would stay until the first week of July, we have decided to move on earlier. Which is fine. Because even though I can now see the attractions of Goa and I appreciate its own, special charm, I don’t think it truly resonates with me. Probably because it is too much like me.

Whereas Ubud is supposed to be governed by feminine shakti energy, which felt nurturing, supportive and loving, Goa is supposed to be ruled by masculine shiva consciousness which is about activating the feminine energy – giving it direction, form and content – and about getting things done. And I don’t need any more pushing. I am just learning to allow. My still dominant masculine energy wants to receive and surrender, to be softened and not tamed. So my friend was right: India does work you, just not in the way I need right now…

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Flying bananas, dancing transvestites and a holy elephant – welcome to southern India!

Flying bananas, dancing transvestites and a holy elephant – welcome to southern India!

Highlight of Southern India: Hampi     Best thing about Kerala/Tamil Nadu: the warmth of the people     Biggest frustration: not being able to order plainly cooked food     Biggest bugbear: the ineffectiveness of local laundry services – the kids are looking more and more like street children     New skill acquired: eating very spicy food     Family ‘broken sunglasses’ tally: 12     Food I am now sick of: basmati rice     Activity I miss the most: going for a run

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 14: 27th April 2017, Goa, India.  

So after four months of a gorgeously tropical but nonetheless predictable daily routine in Bali, we got back on the adventure train, renewed and ‘re-birthed’ (in true Ubud fashion), and flew to Kochi in Kerala. With nothing but a four-night booking in a homestay and no idea where to go next, we prepped ourselves for a culture shock.

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Photo caption: Asian fruit stalls are always so much nicer to look at than the ones at home (top left); street vendors on the sea-front promenade. Selling food. Of course (top right); chilling out in the cool, breezy park (bottom left); Kochi’s sea-front promenade (bottom right). 

I have travelled to India five times in my youth (to Delhi, Ranthambore, Jodhpur and Jaipur in the north, as well as to Mumbai and Hyderabad in the middle) but never to its southern states. And during each of these trips I enjoyed the cosseting that comes with being either a wedding guest or an ambassador for a global brand (the uber-luxurious Amanresorts or ABN AMRO bank). So visiting again almost exactly nine years later to the day, this time with three kids under seven in tow and no security blanket to ease our potential pain, made me pretty apprehensive.

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Photo caption: living in India in Victorian times wasn’t easy despite what we might think. A quick visit to the largest church in Ooty confirmed this with lots of plaques for women and men in their 20s and early 30s who had died of fever. This particular lady had already had 7 children by the time she was 30. Ouch (top left); always waiting for food (top right); buffalo road block (bottom left); personalised trucks (bottom right).

And yet the first thing that struck us about Keralan life was just how easy it was. Everyone spoke English! Signs were readable! Streets and restaurants were clean and tidy! And, to the kids’ delight, there was finally a whole range of breads on offer instead of just the usual rice suspects. Here, unlike Bali, there were no stray animals to be wary of nor beggars to hound us. The regional government seems to run a very tight ship: no-one has more than two children (as advised), there is no prostitution, all strays are sterilised and the population is 100% educated (hence the lack of begging).

Kochi was a haven of quiet and calm compared to a typical north Indian city – almost Mediterranean in its outlook. Shopkeepers were super honest and the locals went out of their way to make sure we were happy. For example, when going ‘off menu’ and trying to order some plain, ‘green’ vegetables instead of the usual potato, carrot and cauliflower mix, instead of telling me that this wasn’t available, the enterprising young waiter hopped on his scooter and went to buy me some from the local market. On his return, he then explained to his chef how to make them into a Thai ‘green’ curry. By the time I had realised how lost in translation my request had become, I was too embarrassed to say anything. It was delicious!

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Photo caption: Jew town – which surrounds the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth (top left & bottom right); excerpts from a book – I never did find out which but I did get quite hooked – that are found on walls dotted all around Kochi – I never did find out why (top right); incense shop (bottom left).

So having left India until the last leg of our trip because I was worried it would be too much of a culture and hygiene shock for the kids any time before then, Southern India in fact turned out to be one of the easiest places to travel around. Hiring a driver to take us (and our mountain of luggage) from Kochi to our final destination in Goa definitely helped. But even our tentative foray into public transport was made memorable by the welcoming nature of our fellow train passengers, their generosity with their food and the spontaneous entertainment provided by our female conductor who kept bursting into song.

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Photo caption: Alleppey backwater cruise: Captain Raphael (top left); local houses (top right & bottom left); a typical Keralan house boat (bottom right).

After three days spent exploring Kochi and one sailing the backwaters of Alleppey (slightly underwhelming), we set off on a road trip towards Goa. It took 15 days, with stops in the hill station of Udhagamandalamhere (for some countryside), Mysore (for some city) and Hampi (for some temples).

Check out our progress here!

India is LARGE and most roads are either in bad condition, mere dust tracks or too narrow to drive along at a decent speed. Thus getting from one place to another usually took at least 8 hours of pure misbehaving torture from the kids and lots of screaming from us. So by the time we got to Goa, our proud driver, Greesh (who announced that driving for 16 hours straight is mere peanuts for a Keralan), was well and truly initiated into the worst aspects of our family dynamic. Thankfully, he seemed to take it in his stride. (Indians are pretty relaxed).

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Photo caption: long distance driving with kids sorely tests your patience. Having exhausted all possible entertainment options at this stage, I am pictured here (above bottom) resorting to a family air-guitar competition. We would try to leave around 8.30 in the morning to get to our next destination at around 6pm. Our one allocated pit-stop would be at a road side cafe (example above top) which, despite looking very grotty from the outside, usually produced amazing food. We even inadvertently once ate a plate of crudites (more lost-in-translation ordering) with no adverse effects. Word of advice: always travel with your own bar of soap (some restaurants have water but not all have soap) and never look at where they wash up. This alone will make you ill.

Udhagamandalamhere was our first proper stop after a very picturesque but uncomfortable journey on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Not surprisingly, this town is more popularly known as Ooty, or ‘Snooty Ooty’, after the colonials that used to summer here. We stayed in the perfect, period, Rudyard Kipling-esque Lymond House with only three bedrooms, a lounge with a working fireplace and to complete the picture, a beautiful vintage car parked out front.

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Photo caption: Lymond house in Ooty (top & bottom left); me wearing all of my warmest clothes at once when temperatures dropped to 9 degrees inside at night (bottom right). Never can I be accused of showing only my best sides.  

But at a whopping 2,300 metres above sea level, Ooty’s description as a ‘hill station’ is slightly misleading and the fireplace was put to good daily use when temperatures dropped to a chilly 9 degrees in the evening. (To put this into context, the Alpine ski resort of Meribel is located at only 1,400m asl and the highest inhabited town in the Alps is at 2,100m.) The altitude meant we got seriously chapped lips and two days of splitting headaches but on the plus side, I hardly saw the kids when we were in the hotel as they were so happy to have a huge wrap-around garden and swing to themselves in which they could play all day in less than scorching temperatures for once.

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Photo caption: Scenes from our five hour journey on the ‘toy train’ from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Our carriage for 6 which took 11 of us (top left); a hilltop train station (top right); mountain vistas (bottom left); pee break (bottom right).

Here, we continued to encounter warm, friendly and accommodating people. One in particular went the extra mile by arranging the return of Xanthe’s beloved toy rabbit (without whom she has never slept), who had been left a two-hour drive away in our former hotel. It still makes me smile to think of the solo adventure he must have undertaken to be reunited with us – a trip to the bus station from the hotel, a two-hour plus ride on the bus to Ooty (accompanied by whom?) and then a lift from the station up to the hotel. And the cost of his return by “courier escort” which took less than half a day to get to us? A whopping 60p!

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Photo caption: the queue at Ooty station when we arrived (top left); the locomotive was at the back of the train rather than at the front and pushed the carriages up the mountain (top right); lush vistas of verdant tea plantations and mountain springs (bottom left); SQUASHED! (bottom right). 

In contrast, I didn’t love our self-catering ‘coconut grove’ accommodation in Mysore. Never trust a venue on Airbnb that doesn’t show a picture of the bedroom (they have added them since). The city itself however was definitely as grand as it is hyped to be: huge, wide boulevards, immense public office buildings and large, leafy town squares. I loved the almost fairy-tale architectural blend of colonial Victorian and Mugal styles in which these imposing public buildings were built. The jewel(s) in the crown were the former maharaja’s palace and the separate palace (now a luxury hotel) he had built exclusively for his guests, replete with essential helipad. (Because one soon finds that just the one palace simply isn’t roomy enough to accommodate one’s guests.)

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Photo caption: Mysore’s Devaraja market – the stalls extend far beyond those inside the building (top left); Mysore Palace (top right); the view from the top of Chamundi Hill, 1001 steps high! (bottom left); some of the wares on offer in Devaraja market (bottom right)

As is so often the case, the highlights of our stay were not so much the sights but the experiences we had whilst there: an early taste of monsoon season with an evening rain storm of such epic, scary proportions that it definitely would have been described as a hurricane in the UK (another reason not to stay in amongst a coconut grove); receiving a family blessing at the Chamundeshwari temple (Chamunda – the “fearsome aspect of the Divine Mother” – has been the patron goddess of the city of Mysore ever since she slayed the demon that was threatening its destruction); buying oils from a 12 year old wheeler-and-dealer at the incredible Devaraja market; and my Ayurvedic massage which has to be the most unusual treatment I have ever received.

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Photo caption: having received a red bindi from inside the temple (symbolising divine sight), we each received a physical blessing from the goddess Chamunda in the form of a wrist band, tied several times in an intricate fashion as the holy man recited a mantra (top left); a cow on a busy Mysore street (top right); drinking fresh sugar cane juice (bottom left); buying essential oils – geranium and jasmine – inside Devaraja market (bottom right)

It started innocuously enough with a Hindu prayer, after which came a foot scrub administered by one masseuse, during which warm oil was poured into my ears to clean them and then all over my hair and scalp to moisturise them, by another. They then joined forces to administer a vigorous, four-handed “synchronised” (their speciality) massage, which covered very nearly every single inch of my body. (The Indians may seem prudish in daily life but when it comes to wellness, not at all.) It ended with a steam in a Victorian-looking wooden contraption into which you had to climb in order to sit on what looked like a church pew. The lid of this box then closed around your neck to leave only your head exposed whilst you were slowly cooked. I had to ask them to turn it down twice. Afterwards, I was given two mystery tablets to take with my supper in order to “cleanse” my gut (where the toxins amalgamate after an Ayurvedic treatment).

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Photo caption: some of Hampi’s amazing monuments including a stone chariot (bottom left). 

I was also blown away, in a different way, by our final destination of Hampi. Not knowing beforehand that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nor anything else about it for that matter, we were amazed to find that it is only a tiny village located actually in amongst the ruins themselves.

The site is remarkable not only because most of its historic buildings are so well-restored but also because of the unusual geographical landscape in which it is located: towering temples and majestic palaces rise up out of a palm tree-dotted, desert-like terrain that is broken up by piles of vast boulders, seemingly strewn in every direction. And yet unlike so many other globally-renowned architectural sites, this one was almost deserted! All of which made exploring so magical – you could really feel the ancient energy of the place, despite the daily, 41-degree heat.

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Photo caption: temple detail (top left); a pregnant monkey stealing the contents of our bin – I’d filled it with rotten figs: with no fridge nor air con and 41 degree heat, none of our fruit collection survived. She had a feast (top right); river view – where Lakshmi the elephant took her daily morning bath – we never did manage to catch her on time (bottom left); Hampi temple (bottom right)  

Even more amazing was the fact that a two-day, Hindu festival was planned during our stay. We had no idea what this would entail but as it coincided this year with the full moon, it drew hoards of Indian pilgrims from villages far and wide, who either walked for miles carrying their luggage on their head or came by tractor load to witness it. And just as their ancestors would have done before them many centuries ago, they set up temporary homes in, on and under the temples, using them to hang their washing on, to set up shop in or to aid in the display of their wares.

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Photo caption: Hampi temple (top left); joining the throngs of pilgrims (top right); bathing in the river to cleanse before the full moon/festival (bottom left); locals squatting in the temples (bottom right).

Indeed, from one day to the next, a little auxiliary town seemed to spring up out of nowhere to accommodate the visitors: shops selling all sorts of clothes, toys, religious paraphernalia, fruit and of course, Indian sweets. There were skills on offer too: hair shavers (it is auspicious to shave your head before being cleansed in the river prior to the festival), shoe shiners, pop-up eateries and even a lone entrepreneur with his mobile, bright blue set of bathroom scales.

As in Myanmar, we discovered that being white with three small kids – two of which are blonde – made us just as much a draw as the festivities themselves. I was constantly being asked if all three were mine (?) and we were never without our little band of followers. These would either just stare at us or try to touch one of the children – I think they thought it brought good luck. Given the number of ‘selfies’ we posed for, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the kids are the new Asian Facebook sensation.

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Photo caption: Lakshmi the elephant dispensing blessings in the crowd (top left); dancing transvestites accompanied by male drummers and male dancers carrying huge metal poles covered in bells which they threw up and down – heavy duty work! (top right); the crowds waiting for the festival to start – every available roof top was used – even if it was thousands of years old! (bottom left); the chariot moving towards and past us to great cheering (bottom right)

Indians do not do things by halves and the festival itself was a proper extravaganza! The spectacle included a towering, decorated, wooden chariot – the centrepiece and focus of the ceremony as it was dragged by hand from one end of the town to the other – a holy elephant collecting cash and dispensing blessings as it wandered amongst the crowd, flying bananas tied up with bougainvillea (the auspicious aim was to throw them actually into the moving chariot), dancing transvestites, flaming torches, hypnotic drumming and an ecstatic, cheering crowd of thousands.

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Photo caption: one of the “golam” drawn in rice flour powder found in front of villager’s houses on the festival day. The floor underneath has been died green with cow dung paste, prized for its anti-bacterial and mood-enhancing properties! (top left); enjoying street food (top right); Hampi temple (bottom left); sweetie heaven! (bottom right)

And all this merry making without a drop of alcohol (it is banned in Hampi for religious reasons) or any other form of drug. Which actually made a big difference to the overall vibe. Despite having three small kids and constantly being surrounded by huge crowds, I never once felt unsafe. Indeed, I felt the safest and most welcome I have ever felt at a festival! Everyone was there to have a good time, and I must have heard the phrase “this is true Indian culture” from those around me at least 5 times. Since we were off to Goa the next day to start the next 12 week chapter of our stay in this incredible country, I took this as a good sign…

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 13: 5th March 2017, Ubud, Bali.   

6 months ago, we took our two eldest children out of school, our youngest out of nursery, stacked most of our boxed-up belongings into six self-storage units, lent out our car, rented out our newly-renovated house and got on a plane to Greece.

Given that we are now just past the half-way mark of the entire trip, here is a round up of what went right, what went wrong and how we have changed. And for an update on our physical progress, click here!

COUNTRIES & PLACES VISITED (for at least one night):

GREECE (4 weeks living like locals): Athens; Nas (Ikaria); Ermoupolis (Syros) – we based ourselves in Nas (the last hippy outpost of the island and the source of its culinary fame), first, in a hostel and then in self-catering accommodation. Travel-wise, we interspersed longer day excursions with shorter trips and added a 3 day spell on nearby Syros to break up the month (and celebrate my b’day)! This worked well although the driving was quite tiring given the state of most of Ikaria’s roads and the fact that it is actually much bigger than it seems on a map!

Highlights: feeling like one of the family in Nas; the to-die-for cakes (orange semolina, baklava and cheese cake); the crystalline sea water; dancing into the night at the village panigyria. (Read more in my 4 Greek blogs: So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, GoodbyeWhen in Ikaria, do as the IkariansFirst the Shabby, now for the Chic & Eat, Pray, Love)

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MYANMAR (3 weeks exploring): Yangon, Bago, Inle Lake, Old Bagan, Mandalay – this was our first Asian destination. We backpacked our way round the country using public buses and hired, private mini vans. The thrill alone of being back on this continent (with its exotic smells, tastes, sights and sounds) kept us going for two weeks until the slightly too-fast pace of travel caught up with us and we all got ill with (dengue?) fever. This forced us to adapt our strategy and slow down. We found that 3 nights was the absolute minimum we need to stay in one place in order to get a sense of it without feeling rushed, and 5 nights in the same hotel is the minimum we need in order to retain the energy to continue at that pace.

Highlights: the sheer scale and splendour of the Buddhist temples; the generosity, hospitality and easy affection of the Burmese. (Read more in my 3 Burmese blogs: The Land of Temples, Pagodas & Stupas; Magnificent MyanmarTaking the Rough with the Smooth)

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THAILAND (4 weeks living like locals): Bangkok; Mae Nam (Koh Samui) – Thailand was booked as a last-minute respite after so much exhausting rushing around in Myanmar. There was also the lure of some beach time and the promise of an international school. In our haste however, we’d forgotten it would be rainy season (so beach time was limited), and the school turned out to have closed the day before we arrived. This taught us to plan ahead a little more. We stayed put in the same town on the same island, firstly, in a hotel and then in a luxurious, self-catering, private villa (off Airbnb). The latter not only saved us loads of cashola but also gave us a real sense of belonging and quickly felt like home. As in Greece, we hired a car and explored the island during day trips.

Highlights: shopping like locals at fresh markets; driving a truck; trekking in the jungle; Thai curries. (Read more in my 2 Thai blogs: Taking the Rough with the Smooth & Time Out Thai-Style)

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LAOS (2 weeks exploring): Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoy – we felt ready for an adventure again after living like expats on Koh Samui so travelling round Laos seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately however, we didn’t quite realise how non child-friendly it was with its exclusive, chic restaurants and equally exclusive (for different reasons) adventure tourism. Using public transport (boat and bus) to get around was hard, because the former are pretty terrible (no pee stops, no meal stops, crummy seats and no suspension) and the heat during the daytime was relentless. Accommodation wasn’t great either and the people weren’t very welcoming, so even though we followed our new strategy of staying in one place for at least 5 nights, Laos was probably the worst leg of our trip.

Highlights: travelling up the Mekong by boat; the dramatic, mountainous scenery of northern Laos; my decadent facial at Amantaka. (Read more in my 2 Laotian blogs: Exposing Cultural Differences & It’s the People that Make the Country)

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INDONESIA (16 weeks living like locals): Ubud (Bali) – Bali was also booked as a last-minute respite from Laos and originally we only planned to stay for the festive Xmas season. But the slow pace and quality of life available in Ubud, quickly prompted us to extend our stay. We have enjoyed just one (pimp) Airbnb villa for the entire duration. Having finally outsourced schooling, we have been proper expats for this stint of our trip and have not really done any sightseeing or cultural activities!

Highlights: the welcoming warmth of Pelangi school; the breadth of healing modalities available in Ubud; finally learning Bahasa. (Read more in my 2 Balinese blogs: Beautiful, Bountiful Bali & Living Life in the Slow Lane)

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LESSONS LEARNT:

What worked:

  • lugging two English and two French (very bulky and hugely heavy) anthologies of bedtime stories around with us. These help create familiarity and routine in new and foreign bedrooms.
  • not bringing toys. Luckily the kids have each other and having a private pool definitely helps. (Thankfully, Peppa Pig is also accessible worldwide).   
  • taking daily probiotics. I’m convinced that this alone has greatly reduced the overall incidences of runny tummies especially given how prone the two youngest kids are at both licking public objects or putting their (unwashed) fingers in their mouths at all available opportunities. In fact, aside from our Myanmar blip, severe upset tummies at least once in each of the kids (thank God for codeine phosphate), an ear infection, a parasitic infection, an anemone sting, countless mosquito bites and the two self-inflicted ailments that resulted in trips to A&E (a damaged ear drum and a cut to the cheek), we have all escaped pretty unscathed. 
  • bringing a plug-in night-light for the kids (left behind in Thailand).
  • carrying a mini sterile kit: I was able to convince the doctors not to attempt a non-anesthetised stitching procedure on me and to use my steri-strips (which were not available in Luang Prabang hospital) instead. 
  • giving up on homeschooling: unless you have permanently opted out of the official schooling system in your country, do not attempt to home/un-/or world-school your children. This is only for the very patient, very creative and very motivat-ing (and -ed) type of parent. Needless to say, we both sucked. Enrolling the kids in the nearby international nursery/school was the best decision ever: they are now thriving and we have some time to ourselves! The girls have picked up the basics of a new language, they have made friends with children from a whole range of different nationalities; they have reconnected to a working rhythm including homework, show-and-tell presentations and class assemblies, and they even do weekly yoga and gardening. What Raphael gets up to at nursery is frankly awe-inspiring and way better than anything back home. 

 

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What didn’t work:

  • assuming that our children (7, 5 and 3) would suddenly become adventurous eaters because they were being exposed to different flavours and styles of cooking. They will now just about (aka be forced to) eat food that is a tiny bit more “spicy” than they are used to. Please note “spice” for them means an-amount-so-teeeny-that-it-is-barely-perceptible of soy sauce or coconut milk, as opposed to actual spice or chili). We have therefore found that it is much easier to order them western dishes when out and we try to be as self-catering as possible.
  • bringing audio CDs: most hire cars are so basic that there either are no speakers in the back or it is impossible to vary the balance between front and back sets. Since most don’t have air con either, you need to open the windows in order not to die of heat. It is thus very hard for the kids in the back to actually hear any of the story being read unless the CD is on full volume. Bobomama then gets deafened as well as bored silly so we quickly aborted this as an entertainment option.
  • bringing large versions of expensive toiletries to “get me through the trip”. This only works if you are not travelling with a back-pack into which you have to squeeze all of your family’s stuff. Unfortunately for me, most of my wholesale-sized, exorbitantly-priced Dermalogica facewash oozed into the recesses of my wash bag during our first month away as a result of being squashed. I have since resorted to buying toiletries on-the-go. Hopefully I won’t look 20 years older on my return as a result.
  • global travel adaptor plugs: these are so top heavy in order to accommodate so many different types of plug, that they topple out of sockets. Avoid.

 

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 Travel ‘hacking’ tips:

  • negotiate on Airbnb! Prices are geared towards one or two night-stays and are usually ridiculously high. For stays longer than this, email all the villa owners whose places you like the look of, and offer them the price that you can afford to pay (however small this might seem in comparison). You might get some outrage but some will respond and you will end up with a good ‘local’, long-term rate on a very nice place. 
  • do not pack anything on the outside of your rucksack even though there are hooks to hang things off and nets to secure things behind. These are deceiving. It will get nicked.
  • use packing cubes. I had never even heard of these before this trip but they have quickly become indispensable. They divide an otherwise chaotic mass of stuff into individual compartments, and can be used as mini suitcases when staying somewhere short-term with no room to fully unpack.
  • most visa applications specify that you need to provide proof of an onward journey on arrival at customs. This is a major hassle if you don’t actually know where you are going next or when. So don’t bother. We have not once been asked for this (touch wood).  

 

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So…..

Have we changed? Yes! Are we definitely going home? Yes!

Our trip has not always been easy on a practical or emotional level, and there are undeniable challenges of travelling abroad, including: super uncomfortable Asian pillows; huge hotel bills (thanks to having to book two rooms to accommodate 5 of us); the stress of trying not to lose too many things every time we change destination; the very basic standard of very basic accommodation; lack of privacy (villa staff come and go as they please, unannounced – the gardener has seen me naked at least 5 times); the sometimes intrusive, physical curiosity of Asians; tropical insects – particularly cockroaches and scorpions; trying to avoid the heat of the burning sun and trying to avoid catching mosquito-borne, dengue fever.

But the benefits of being far from home far outweigh the disadvantages, including: outsourcing the cleaning and laundry; living in luxury accommodation with staff; owning a private pool large enough to do proper laps in; constant warm temperatures; swimming in warm seas; the magic of fireflies; sleeping under a magnificent starlit sky; being serenaded nightly by cicadas and frogs; re-visiting the uber-luxurious Amanresorts.

This year of travel and exposure to other ways of living has helped us to work out who we really are. I always saw this ‘gap’ year as an opportunity to be re-birthed into the blue-print of me that was hiding behind the masks. The me that lay beyond the adopted habits of my peer group and generation, behind the family patterns I have inherited and absorbed, underneath both the societal belief systems that have been imposed on me, as well as the pervasive collective attitudes of my socio-economic class, culture, race and nationality. And it has done all that and more.

Will we carry on exactly as before on our return? I hope not. Because doing things that are out of the ordinary (and out of your comfort zone), keeps you alive. It is also fuel to the engine of gratitude. I want to continue to feel alive and grateful, so I want to continue to travel. That doesn’t mean I don’t also appreciate my creature comforts. I no longer crave some aspects of English life as I did after a month or so of hard-core backpacking, but I am not ashamed of admitting that I do miss some aspects of the life we had and am looking forward to it resuming.

The solution: to be based in the UK during term time and to dust down our backpacks for some adventure travel every school holiday. Is this realistic? Why wouldn’t it be? We are, after all, the creators of our own reality. I want to incorporate what to me, is the best of both worlds: Bourgeois and Bohemian. And I can. So I will. And this blog –  and you, dear reader, – are going to hold me to it…

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To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Living life in the slow lane…

Living life in the slow lane…

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 12: 27th January 2017, Ubud, Bali.   

Ever since I first backpacked around Indonesia as a fledgling 20-year-old, I have secretly wondered if I could live here full time. 21 years later and 8 weeks into our 4-month-long stay, my dream finally seems to have materialised. Leaving for a 2-day visa run to Singapore this week and realising that I really missed the Balinese vibe, only confirmed just what it is (aside from the obvious) that attracted me all those years ago.

It is the speed of life. It is so SLOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWW: here, no-one is ever in a rush; no-one is ever in a frenzy and no-one takes pride in being ‘too busy’ to stop to do something else. People talk meaningfully, they always look you in the eye and everyone’s movements are considered and deliberate. Time doesn’t seem to be measured here in quite the same way as it is in Europe; there is no notion of either ‘on time’ or ‘late’, and group as well as individual schedules are flexible whatever the ‘importance’ of the action being programmed: just as yoga classes, language lessons and even religious ceremonies often start late, pupils and adherents often turn up late. No one is fussed about a few minutes (or hours) here and there because there is no notion of missing out (on the part of the attendees) and there is no concept of disrespect (on the part of the organisers).

Here, timeliness is not a quality to aspire to so it is not considered ‘rude’ not to do so. Indeed, there hardly ever seem to be any grounds for taking offence. The Balinese live in harmony with the flow of life and accept that with flow, naturally comes flexibility.

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Photo caption: just one of the hundreds of ceremonies that take place nearly every day throughout Bali but our first as participants. This one was in honour of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom. It was celebrated in temples across the country as well in schools – this one was held for Pelangi school parents, pupils and teachers. Needless to say, it started an hour and a quarter after the ‘scheduled’ time. 

This is also the case on the roads. There is no sense of possession over lanes and so no resulting outrage from those in the one opposite to your own if you spend too long in ‘theirs’. In fact, here, the act of overtaking takes priority over any other manoeuvre: oncoming traffic slows down to give you more time to complete it and vehicles move to the side in order to make room. Horns are used thoughtfully in warning rather than angrily to sound outrage – if you hear a ‘toot’ it is because the driver behind you is gently informing you to be careful because he is about to overtake.

The Balinese accommodate each other – slowly – and the overwhelming vibe is that of working towards harmonious balance: with one another, with nature and with the gods. Life is lived very much in the present moment. They literally embody the spiritual mantra that not only does everything have its time and place but that everything is perfect as it is. Just observing this being played out around us is calming and nourishing. So bit by bit, we too have followed suit and just as ‘busyness’ is contagious in Europe, ‘slowness’ is as infectious here. There simply isn’t any other way to be.

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Photo caption: Offerings or “canang sari” epitomise the deliberate slowness of life in Bali. Even the word itself is made up of ca – beautiful and nang – purpose as well as sari (essence). Whilst they range from the simple coconut leaf trays left daily around the house to the fantastically intricate kinds offered up on a full moon or ceremony day, they are always beautifully crafted to combine various elements that each represent a major Hindu god. Flowers (which are a symbol for sincerity and love) each represent a different deity and are placed pointing in a certain direction (white for Iswara which points to the east; red for fiery Brahma which points to the south; yellow for Mahadeva which points to the west and blue or green for cool Vishnu who points to the north). Placed on top is a stick of incense – as it burns the essence of the offering rises up to heaven. They are seen as a kind of selfless act – an offering of money and time made partly in gratitude and partly in appeasement to the potentially ‘mischeivous’ lower spirits. Equally importantly, the act of making them (always a female task) offers a chance to pause and meditate in communal creativity.  

This slow pace is particularly good for me because my natural inclination is towards the opposite: I speak fast; I react fast; I think fast; I move fast. Going from ‘a’ to ‘b’ was always a self-imposed mini challenge: how many calories could I burn in getting there? How much muscle power could I convert into accelerated motion? How late I could I leave it before setting off for the next destination thereby maximising the time allocated on whatever I was doing before? I often listened to reply instead of to understand; I used to try to fix things in order to move on rather than patiently witnessing their unfolding.

Having previously always lived in capitalist societies, whose mantra, ‘time is money’, had until now seeped insidiously into my belief system, I always thought that speed was necessary. Not only because I had so much to cram into my ‘tight’ schedule: three small kids to manage, a house and its chores to oversee, a wine events and consultancy business to run, womens’ circles to organise, blogs to write, yoga classes to attend, runs to be completed – how else could I possibly fit everything into a day? But also because I secretly loved (and still do) the adrenalin rush that comes with speed, the thrill of acceleration, the whiff of danger it exudes.

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Photo caption: family-time Balinese style. 

I thought that working in a frenzied state was not only desirable but laudable. But what I didn’t get and do now, is that acting rushed never does extend time. In fact, it usually does the opposite. And so pushing through instead of surrendering to the flow meant that I never felt that there was enough time, regardless of how fast I completed things. It also meant that I was rarely in the present, distracted instead by the ticking hand of the clock and what was next on my ‘to do’ list.

Here, on the other hand, the time at my disposal feels more spacious. I really can be a human being rather than a human doing. Bali has allowed me to slow down, to be more conscious and as a result, to tune into my intuition, heart and emotions. Now it is they that lead the show rather than my busy, cluttered state of mind.

It definitely helps that we have a weekly masseuse, that I outsource our laundry and ironing, and that there is home help who sweep the floor (yay) and make the beds (double yay – isn’t it so much more relaxing to climb into a neat bed that wasn’t made by yourself)? It also helps that the two eldest kiddies are at school with the youngest at nursery in the SAME venue, which means that for the first time in 7 years, I have one drop off, one pick up and a WHOLE DAY in between to do WHATEVER I WANT. Oh yeah!

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Photo caption: Bali’s simple, timeless pleasures are food for the soul: the sight of locals tending to their land, atmospheric sunsets, lush paddy fields and exotic beaches. 

But it is more than that. I have changed my attitude: I no longer feel guilty that someone else is doing my washing, nor that I am not the sole provider of entertainment, comfort, instruction and love for my children. Crucially, I no longer feel that it is my duty to do everything and to be everything to everyone just because I am not yet contributing enough financially to feel justified in doing my own thing. Instead, we have realised as a family, that by spending that little bit extra on outsourcing what you can, you get SO MUCH MORE. You get the extra time that would have been spent on chores of course, but you also get space. And from that stems a desire to create that comes from inspiration instead of from a self-inflicted pressure to perform. This then leads to real productivity and true abundance. I hope so anyway. I’m working on it!

I still speak fast. And think fast. But I move a bit slower and I feel less rushed inside. Now, rather than letting it annoy me, I enjoy the ‘bonus’ relaxing time that arises if a class starts later than its scheduled time; I travel in a leisurely fashion and leave more time to get to places; I have implemented a daily meditation practise (something I never felt I had the time to fit in before) and I have started to listen more actively. I have also started to breathe slower, to widen my shoulders and to open my chest (and not just in downward dog). And in finally surrendering to time, it now feels like there is so much more of it!

So the travel part of our year-long adventure has temporarily stalled – the kids and I are even learning to speak and write the local language. We have made a conscious decision to get stuck here, to explore living abroad in a slower and more meaningful way than is possible when just passing through. To quote a friend, Bali has become our ‘happy place’. And that surely, has to be something worth pausing for….

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Beautiful, bountiful Bali…

Beautiful, bountiful Bali…

Best thing about Bali: the awesome locals     New skill acquired: a) riding a moped b) riding a moped with three kids on it as well as me     Local food: unimpressed     Local wine: very impressed     Number of pairs of sunglasses that have broken since setting off: 9     Items of clothing lost through laundry services: over 20     Items mislaid during travels: over 30 (including very expensive, barely worn running shoes lost by airline)     Trips to A&E: 2     Thing I miss the most right now: mince pies!

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 11: 23rd December 2016, Ubud, Bali.   

I knew when I wrote that I hadn’t yet used our emergency medical kit, that it wouldn’t be long before it was required. Talk about tempting providence. Two days later, our last night in Luang Prabang was made memorable by a trip to Laotian A&E for multiple stitches to my cheek. (The reason for this is not very glamorous – I banged it on the back of a chair whilst stooping to pick something up in the dark).

The hospital was VERY basic. So the idea of a needle so close to my eye ‘sans anaesthetic’ did not seem like much fun. Instead I ‘suggested’ (forcibly) that I use my own steri-strips, despite, somewhat naively, not knowing whether this was even feasible. It was a risk that paid off. I may have spent the first week of our stay in Bali resembling a cage fighter (with my rather large facial dressing) but all is well now. Just another scar that should fade. I hope!

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Photo caption: off to practise my moped skills (top left); what happens when you don’t take an umbrella with you in rainy season (top right); a passion fruit from the tree in our garden next to our private temple (bottom left); BoboMama me-time – or so I’d hoped (bottom right)

Luckily Bali is an incredible centre for healing of all sorts. It is not for nothing that it is called the Island of the Gods. It seems to offer everything: beautiful natural scenery (including an active volcano, tropical jungle, verdant rice fields and sandy beaches); a smattering of superb restaurants (particularly if you are into the burgeoning vegetarian/vegan/raw food movement) and a local population that is super friendly, warm, thoughtful and kind. And here, in the ‘cultural capital’ of the country – Ubud – we are the beneficiaries of its most amazing and also oddest attribute: the meeting of two very different sets of spiritual practices.

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Photo caption: view of the still-active volcano, Mount Agung, from Xanthe and Raphael’s Steiner school (top left); the walk to school (top right); the view from our villa (bottom left and right)

The most visible sign of Bali’s religion is its inhabitants’ adherence to the multiple ceremonies that are held throughout the year – even birthdays are celebrated twice! These either welcome or shun certain types of spirits but mostly just appease them so that they leave us well alone. This is because ‘butakala’ or potentially negative spirits will only do harm if neglected or provoked. So villages and homes are dotted with ubiquitous offerings of flowers and food: the women lay them out daily on household shrines, temples, near rivers and in and around the entrances to houses. Since they are known to be particularly active on certain days, at certain times of day, in specific locations (known to all locals), processions with various effigies are regular occurrences at which traditional dress is donned, gongs and drums are banged.

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Photo caption: every day Ibu Wayan comes to visit (dressed especially in ceremonial gear) and leaves her home-made offerings at our temple as well as dotted around the house and entrance. She says some prayers, lights a joss stick and sprinkles water on each and every one in order to bring “good sleep” and “relaxing”. 

Alongside this, there is the sometimes slightly JP Sears-esque New Age version, in which tourists, drawn to Bali for its remedial network, can supplement their inner-journeying with heart-opening cacao ceremonies, chakra-balancing yoga, past-life and ancestral clearing, harmonic body songs, deep dive dance, conscious communication sharing circles and holographic kinetics. (To name but a few of the mind-bending, alternative therapies on offer.) Healing tonics, raw chocolate brownies, gluten-free pizzas, dairy-free ice cream and kids’ brown-rice bento boxes are all readily available here; the local supermarket sells frozen wheatgrass shots, organic palm nectar and spirulina flakes, and even the cinema is an organic, vegan one.

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Photo caption: snapshots of last week’s ceremony to appease the ‘butakala’ or potentially disruptive spirits  

It is both awesomely refreshing that alternative healing modalities are so readily accessible – I have hugely benefited from dabbling in a few of them – but it can also get a teeny bit annoying too: just about every westerner you meet is a therapist of some sort and conversations over heard in cafes can border on the self-consciously esoteric – on our very first morning here we stumbled into the nearest café only to catch the end of someone’s description of their most recent shamanic astral travel. As you do.

So whilst my inner Bohemian is loving it, my inner Bourgeois is having a superiority-complex field day: are these guys for real? What kind of planet have I landed on? The latter half of me is not alone: I have recently heard this phenomenon described as Bali ‘bla bla’. Which makes me laugh. Because it sums up the potential weariness that I feel might ensue when I have been here so long that I just crave some football talk. And I hate football. Just anything that offers a glimpse into something that is a bit more grounded, solid, real.

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Photo caption: offerings along the bridge over the nearby stream (top left); another shrine to the river (top right); safe-guards for homes come in various forms: offerings, an ‘aling aling’ wall just behind the main entrance (‘butakala’ can’t turn sharp corners), warning messages (bottom left); and statues of Ganesh the protector, who also inspires us with faith that obstacles will be overcome (bottom right)

Thus it’s been an interesting three weeks. And definitely relaxing. We have been honing our manifesting skills and managed to up our game yet again by finding ourselves living in an even more spacious, luxurious pool villa than the one in Thailand – this time adorned with beautiful art and sculptures and set amongst the most incredibly scenic as well as calming paddy-field vista. All because we waited until quite near to our arrival date before offering a handful of AirBnB owners the price we could afford rather than taking any notice of that which was publicised.

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Photo caption: our pimp Balinese villa  

Waiting until the last minute has never been my forte – after all, Virgos are renowned for their perfectionist planning – but through practising patience and allowing life to FLOW rather than carve my own groove through or against it, I am amazed at how much we have managed to ‘achieve’: two fabulous schools for the three children, a gorgeous yoga studio just 5 minutes walk away, a car and scooter, a lovely babysitter and a brilliantly-talented, weekly masseuse, all within a few days of arrival! Through being clear about what we wanted and trusting that it would show up, we managed to secure all of this purely through serendipitous meetings with key people at random times in random places. Or maybe it’s just Bali. It is said that this island will bring you whatever you need to experience on the next step of your journey. And that’s exactly what it has done for us: some easy living after quite a bit of stress in Laos, a spot of luxury, a precious four hours a day to ourselves during the week and some healing thrown in for good measure.

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Photo caption: New-Age architecture (top and bottom right); Cacao ready for the ceremony (bottom left)

The only thing that is missing is Xmas cheer. Which is probably a blessing really considering how much of a humbug I usually feel in England in response to the ruthless commercialisation of what was originally a pagan festival of light. But it would be nice to indulge in it a bit. So we have made our own advent calendars and snowflake decorations (Kirstie’s homemade Christmas, eat your heart out) and we have found a fun place in which to enjoy a family Xmas Eve supper (which includes face-painting, kids’ corner, Christmas carols and even a visit from Santa. In Bali!)

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Photo caption: an example of Balinese creativity and artistry (top left); a sacred tree near Coco’s school (top right); our local, organic/vegetarian/vegan (of course) cafe (bottom left); home-made advent calendars (bottom right)

It may not be a traditional Xmas – no tree or tinsel this year – but it will be fun and unique: the Balinese masseuse is booked for Xmas morning (it is not a holiday here) and afterwards, we will be enjoying a three-course vegetarian/vegan/raw menu in one of the cool, local cafes (that acts as Andrew’s office during the week). I did however insist on investing in some festive tipple – I bought a sneaky, duty-free bottle of Dom Perignon 2006 whilst transiting through Kuala Lumpur airport – after all, it’s not Xmas without champagne and a wine specialist needs nothing but the best!

Happy Xmas everyone! xxx

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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It’s the people that make the country…

It’s the people that make the country…

Most ubiquitous Laotian menu item: baguette     Longest time we have spent waiting for our first dish (restaurants are painfully slow – only one dish is cooked at a time): 1hr 30 mins     Favourite Laotian moment: being ushered through to the front of the customs queue (because we have “babies”) and being waived through with a smile despite not having the required documents or passport photos with us    Least favourite Laotian moment: noticing that the head a woman was chopping up for her restaurant belonged to a small dog     Waterfalls visited since start of trip: 4     Run-ins with dangerous creepy crawlies: 4 (2 scorpions, 2 snakes)     Foreign words learnt: 22     Transport tally since start of adventure: bus, ferry, minivan, truck, longboat, motorbike, car, aeroplane, taxi, motorbike/car-powered tuktuk     Items of packing still unused: hairdryer, carbon monoxide alarm, mosquito nets, emergency medical kits (thank god)

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 10: 23rd November 2016, Muang Ngoi, Laos.  

I most definitely underestimated how hard it would be to get back into ‘travelling’ mode. We are struggling: with the ‘basic’ nature of backpacker accommodation, with the lack of family-friendly activities on offer and with generally being on top of one another.

Whilst I was looking forward to being on the road again after three weeks in one place, the comparatively ‘harsh’ reality of living out of our rucksacks with no room to unpack, no decent water pressure, low wattage light bulbs and fellow travellers sharing our communal living space (and as a result, our family dynamic) has thrown us all a bit. (It didn’t help that our last accommodation was not only the most spacious, most luxurious and also cheapest we have sampled so far).

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Photo caption: travelling upstream from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi by longboat (top), getting the kids and our luggage (all 9 pieces) from the boat pier to our guesthouse by tractor-cart (bottom)

Whilst the kids are certainly not being more annoying than before, here everything seems just that little bit harder. Unlike Greece and Myanmar which offered a great deal more to do that was family-friendly, in Laos, such activities are very thin on the ground. We seem to fall between the two groups of tourists who are catered for: that of the adventure backpacker looking for jungle zip-wire thrills and that of the slow-paced but well-off retiree who frequents and encourages the proliferation of high-end restaurants and hotels which price everyone else out. We belong in neither camp: the kids are too young for the former’s activities and the latter doesn’t want us anywhere near them. We did well this morning by playing football and cards on the village field outside the school – the local kids all swarmed to share our ball and look inside our bags at our toys and sunglasses. They were super keen to learn the English words for the animals on our playing cards and repeated them eagerly. It was lovely. Other days we have attempted watered down versions of the adventure activities on offer. But most walks are either too hot or too long for our kids and result in crying on their part and frustration on ours. So whilst most travellers on the island are either hiking in the jungle, kayaking on the river or chilling out in their hammocks enjoying the view, we are grappling to find some sort of family-friendly entertainment for the kids. Which means zero down time unless we give them an iphone to watch cartoons. This is what has been happening on an increasingly regular basis – so much so that I am feeling very guilty about it.

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Photo caption: paddling in a cool stream that emerges from a large grotto used by the locals to shelter from daytime aerial bombardment during the Vietnam war (top left); one of a series of multiple, turquoise-hued waterfalls in the middle of the jungle (top right); the mighty Mekong (bottom left); some of the moon bears that had been rescued from captivity on a bile farm – extracted for use in traditional medicine (bottom right)

So we are not really loving it here. It doesn’t help that most of the locals we have met so far are neither warm nor welcoming. Most are very wary of us and even the children either stare at us blankly if we wave or smile, or else laugh or leer at us. Laos is also the first country in which the kids have been told off: our guest house complained no less than four times on the account of the children acting like children. This was after said guesthouse failed to show up at the airport to collect us but before they gave us one hour’s notice to check-out (they had double booked the room). They then ‘helped us’ obtain last minute bus tickets to a new destination by charging nearly double the normal price. Add to this our recent ‘crotch grabbing’ incident (see last post) and all in all, we’re not feeling the Laotian vibe.

Perhaps we are judging them unfairly by comparing them to the ridiculously affectionate and honest Burmese who set the Asian best-host-nation-bar very high. It could be that Laotians are just naturally more reserved. Or perhaps they resent foreign tourists as many of the Thais also seem to? (It wouldn’t be surprising given how many of them spent years of their lives in caves avoiding aerial bombardment from the Americans:  this country has the hideous distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation – 30% of the 2 million tonnes of ‘ordnance’ dropped on them during the Vietnamese war never detonated.) Who knows. In short, we seem to have lost our travelling mojo.

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Drying chillies (top left); every sort of roll you can imagine for sale at the night market (top right); barbecued meat and fish skewers (bottom left); exotic fruit stall (bottom right) 

What Laos certainly does offer on the other hand, is an intriguing mix of colonial and local architecture, international cuisine and magnificent natural scenery. Luang Prabang offers all three and reminded me of a cross between Ubud in Bali (with its hip bar and restaurant scene back-dropped by jungle) and Kyoto in Japan (with its narrow streets lined with neat, wooden houses interspersed with temples). That said, we didn’t love it there either. There was something almost too twee about it. Too many gorgeous little shops and beautifully-converted boutique hotels for my liking; a few too many cute, colonial-style cafes and smart restaurants for it not to feel like it wasn’t a bit over-designed and unnatural. Almost like a Laotian-themed, long-weekend resort for moneyed Asian expatriates. And since we are not travelling in this capacity right now, I found it a bit annoying. (Ok, I admit it, I was jealous. I wanted to be staying at Amantaka – my old employer – with unlimited financial resources to splash out on fine food, wine, shopping and cultural trips).

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Photo caption: traditional and colonial architecture in Luang Prabang

As for natural beauty and local colour, Muang Ngoi, the sleepy, car-less village where we are currently staying, provides this in bucket fulls: a stunning view of the murky, fast-flowing Mekong and an opportunity to witness what a bustling thoroughfare this is as long boats shuttle from one settlement to another laden with people and goods; water buffalo bathing in its waters and grazing on its grassy mounds;  villagers with conical, bamboo hats tending their small-holdings in the foothills of the surrounding craggy mountains; small children, pigs, dogs, cats, geese, hens, cows and goats all wandering round the narrow village streets; caged squirrels and birds competing for attention and freedom. It made the long journey here from Luang Prabang worth it (5 hours of bum-numbing, pot-hole hopping mini bus to Nong Khiaw for one night followed by an hour of longboat – there is no road – the following morning).

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Photo caption: temples, Buddhas, shrines and monks 

But despite all this, there is still something missing in Laos, for me. It may be that we were spoilt in Thailand where we actually got to live like a local rather than a tourist, or maybe we are just tired of being on the road. Maybe we are fighting our natural, northern hemisphere-trained body clocks which are desperate to wind down and ‘hibernate’ and so we are feeling our usual wintery weariness despite the local climate. Personally, I think it is because I have realised that it is the people that count over and above what a country has to offer in terms of scenery, cuisine or sights. For me, the way the people either welcome you in or don’t is what makes or breaks a destination. To be treated like a local even though you are a tourist is what stays in your heart and memory for far longer than the image of the waterfall or mountain view. And in this respect, Ikaria and Myanmar are still in joint pole position.

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Photo caption: a land of juxtapositions – fresh tobacco for sale at the weekly Muang Ngoi village market (top left); temple and tuk-tuk (top right); a posh bakery in Luang Prabang (bottom left); a village house with its loom out front and finished goods for sale (bottom right)

So rather than continue on south and travel overland to Cambodia for a month and then pass overland once again to Vietnam where the children are enrolled in school, we have decided to ditch our (most recent) plan and head for Bali, one of my two most favourite places on earth. Despite having been at least 15 times during my 8 year stay in Hong Kong, I haven’t been back since 2008, and like all travellers, am fully aware that the places we seek out as authentic and special quickly become ‘ruined’ by our very presence. I am hoping that this won’t be the case here and that the Island of the Gods will not only reclaim its unique hold on my heart but that I will finally get to share this with the children. And if that doesn’t resolve our current malaise, we’re heading home!

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Exposing cultural differences…

Exposing cultural differences…

3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 9: 19th November 2016, Luang Prabang, Laos.  

There is a reason that the areas and things we are used to are referred to as our ‘comfort zone’. When we know our way around, when we are familiar with the types of people who surround us and with their role in our lives, when we can pre-empt people’s attitudes or ways of doing things, life becomes both comfortable and comforting. Which can be lovely – I’m actually missing it a bit right now – but it also breeds a kind of apathy.

Which is why travelling can be so exciting. It breaks that mold of control and convenience and allows you to experience things afresh, as though for the first time. Nothing is taken for granted, you have no expectations and as a result you are constantly required to think on your feet.

The primary reason we chose South East Asia as this year’s travel exploration ground, was for the degree to which it would challenge us: its climate, topography, politics, language, development, food and customs could not be more different to ours. We were drawn to the sheer scale of its Otherness.

And we were enjoying this hugely until yesterday, when the challenge with which we were suddenly faced seemed to stray disturbingly into the moral/immoral category: we found out (the hard way) that in many parts of Asia, children are not seen as having any personal or physical boundaries; that those parts of our body that we, in the West, would consider private and off-limits, are simply not viewed as such here. Across India, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (which is, apparently, the very worst offender), children’s bodies are considered totally accessible to all those who are curious, affectionate or just having a laugh at their expense: pants are lowered to have a look and crotches are pulled or grabbed to check gender. Very young boys are the most common targets.

At first, I thought it was just us. I freaked out. We very nearly left the region in a knee-jerk state of shock (having experienced an even more unsettling episode in Thailand). And two episodes in six weeks is enough for me to consider that as a sign to leave. But after doing some research I found out that not only are these acts very common – there is much anecdotal grumbling about it online – but here they are seen as totally acceptable. Indeed, children’s bodies are poked, prodded, pulled and squeezed without shame, in full view of anyone who happens to be around.

The crucial difference behind our varying perspectives on the matter seems to be underpinned by what we assume is the intent behind the act: in the West, where touching another person without their consent can be and usually is, an illegal act, only those that cannot help themselves fall prey to the ‘crime’. In South East Asia however, (I am assured) there is no element of sexuality present at all. Which (kind of) makes sense since the perpetrators are usually from a much older generation and of the same sex as the object of curiosity.

This made me feel a little better. But it certainly didn’t help me get my head round it being ok. And it definitely made explaining to the kids what is ok and what is not ok, what is ‘good’ touch and what is ‘bad’ touch, a whole lot more complicated.

I have now come to very weird, resigned state of mind that is not exactly accepting in terms of condoning, but accepting in that there is nothing else I can do to change things. It is futile for me to demand respect for physical boundaries when that notion does not even exist here. (Interestingly, in Laos, there is no concept of possession: the word for ‘mine’ is the same as that for ‘yours’. I wonder if this has anything to do with it?)

So we wanted a challenge and by God, we got one. (Note to self: be way more careful what I manifest!) It would be an understatement to say that my cultural boundaries have been stretched. But they remain intact and in place. I am newly aware of just how different we can be beneath the veneer of sameness. I’m taking nothing for granted. Once again, I have no expectations. Our Thai and Laotian episodes have served as a cultural awakening that has made me grateful for, and slightly crave, my personal ‘comfort zone’. But we are not quite ready to return yet…

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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Time-out Thai style…

Time-out Thai style…

Favourite local dish: Thai curry     Food I am now sick of: Thai curry     Number of pairs of sunglasses that have broken since setting off: 8     Illness tally: dodgy tummies – 2, fevers – 3, mosquito bites – thousands     Biggest success story: kids’ swimming skills     Biggest challenge: initiating homeschooling without causing a fight     Thing I miss the most: hot yoga     Budget: blown by exactly the same amount for two months in a row. Solution? We upped it.


3 SMALL KIDS, 2 CRAZY ADULTS, 1 YEAR TO TRAVEL THE WORLD

POST 8: 5th November 2016, Mae Nam, Ko Samui, Thailand. 

So, the rains we were waiting for? Well, they came. In style. I’m not talking about a little bit of drizzle here and there. The kind that covers you with a glossy sheen. No. Big, fat, oversized globules of liquid that splat on you and soak you from head to toe in around 30 seconds. Thai rainy season is not like some other versions where the heavens dump their load during an hour or so and then blue skies return. Here, when it starts, it doesn’t finish. And in our experience so far, lasts for between one to three days. Straight.

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Photo caption: the state of the “roads” at this time of year makes for both scary and exhilirating exploration!  

Luckily for us, for the first time since we left, we are holed up in a rather flash, two-bedroom pool villa which boasts all the mod cons including drier (so unenvironmentally friendly but nothing else works in this humidity), English cartoons (for emergencies), snazzy air con and super fast wifi. Oh, and a huge communal, jungle-view, infinity pool, as well as a gym. And it just so happens that it is our cheapest accommodation to date. Go figure.

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Photo caption: our pimp pool villa acquired through heavy negotiation on Airbnb

What the rains have forced us to do is to chill the &^%$ out. We needed to after 7 weeks hard-core travelling. And we will not regret it with 8 weeks travelling just round the corner. And yet I still find this SO hard to do. At least I have twelve more days here in which to practise. Because Thailand is the perfect place for it. Why? Because that is all anyone seems to do around here. Most shops or businesses have just the one member of staff/owner that spends most of their time lying down or sleeping (in full view of the entrance) until a customer actually walks in. Because they can. There is no shame in ‘slacking off’ because that is not how it is seen.

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Photo caption: our homeschooling project: beach manadala (top left); it’s never too early to learn how to make a mojito (top right); sampling the tempura prawn at our village ‘walking night market’ (bottom left); our local, dragon-adorned Chinese temple (bottom right)

And that is part of the beauty of the (unspoilt) Asian way of life: ever-increasing sales and capital growth are not the key factors for success here, just earning enough to supplement your lifestyle/pay for your rent/contribute to the daily shop. So there is no marketing, not many billboards and no pushy sales talk. We, the consumers, are under no outside pressure to buy (this is not the same as ‘inside’ pressure – there can be a fearsome pitch if you cross the shop threshold) and they are happy with the business they can get.

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Photo caption: the coolest and most eccentric jungle bookshop (top); coconuts galore (bottom left); mobile vegetable stall (bottom right)

The problem is, I just don’t resonate with Thailand in the way I do with Indonesia. I never have done. Firstly, I’m not a great fan of the type of expat that is drawn to live here permanently. Rather piggishly, I don’t feel they portray the best side of British culture and rather selfishly, I don’t like being reminded of that when I am abroad. Secondly, there is something I find unsettling about interactions with the locals. In comparison to the Burmese for example, they are exceedingly reserved, they seem to be holding something back, sussing you out and their slightly poker-faced way of dealing with us makes me a little nervous. There must be a reason for this. Because as the Asian chairman of a corporate behemoth once reminded me, there is a reason that Thailand is the only SE Asian country never to have been colonised.

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Photo caption: hidden natural jewels lie just beyond the 52km-long ring road (aka tourist ‘strip’)  

That said, I am feeling happier here than I was. Not that my mood on arrival had much to do with where we were, on retrospect. I was so angry with myself for being ungrateful for what surrounded me – the exotic otherness that I so often crave when I am fully ensconced on my parochial hamster wheel back home. But today I had an insight that came to me during my first-time-in-five-weeks-run that put everything in perspective, as so often happens when I go running. And it was this: that as cliched as it sounds, I am who I am. And I shouldn’t feel bad for not being anyone else, or for not holding anyone else’s opinions or values.

The insight came off the back of realising that I have a short pleasure span. This is not to be confused with attention span – I can be very focused (most would probably say ‘intense’) and I am one of the most methodical people I know – but I need variety. So whilst this year has been a time to court my bohemian side after nearly 20 years of pandering to the bourgeois, I already feel ready to go home, to reinsert myself into the predictability and routine of the school term, the four seasons, the festive Winter grind that is Halloween, Xmas, Valentine’s day and Easter.

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Photo caption: and when the sun comes out – we make the most of the beach! 

And what dawned on me today is that that is OK. I am not a bad person for wanting a life that is full of both (Asian) adventure travel and a habitual schedule. It is not ungrateful to want more than what you have right now or to want to mix it up from time to time, however good you have it right now. It is just WHO I AM. This came as quite a relief and means I no longer castigate myself every time I see an Instagram shot of a school fireworks display and feel a teensy weensy bit like I am perhaps missing out.

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Photo caption: exotic (and HUGE) Thai flora and fauna 

It doesn’t help that Thailand is definitely quieter than it would usually be at the moment and not just because of rainy season. Their ‘beloved’ King died just before we got here and mourning is a long drawn out affair which not only involves wearing black for 30 days but also not partaking in any form of celebration be that a fire show or any other type of entertainment. Amazingly (to me), 95% of the population is adhering to this and most of the clothes stalls are now selling only black garments which is quite an odd sight for such a hot country.

Indeed, such is their devotion to the royal family that many businesses on Koh Samui are now closed whilst the owners pilgrimage to Bangkok to ‘pay their respects’ to their former ruler. From my tentative enquiries with taxi drivers (usually the source of all knowledge), I understand that the official mourning period lasts for one year. I can’t help but wonder whether we in the UK will be as conscientious in our ‘devotion’ when the time comes?

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Photo caption: clothes stalls full of monochrome items (top); even a modest village house boasts its own ‘memorial shrine’ to the King (bottom)

So, all in all, this period of in between-ness has been challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I am learning to chill out (kind of), we are getting used to spending time together as a family without an exploration ‘agenda’ and we are experiencing a more domestic side of our ‘living like locals’ goal: one that involves shopping in a sprawling hypermarket every other day as we indulge our (expensive) desires not to eat like locals for every single meal of the day and more excitingly, one that also includes popping to the nearby, local market to try our hand at recreating at home, the curries for which this country is renowned. We haven’t quite managed this yet – probably because, with my neophyte enthusiasm for new and unusual ingredients, I am putting them all in together. Which is not the Thai way. Unsurprisingly, specific things go in specific dishes. (I found this out to my embarrassment this morning as I was reprimanded by the market stall holder over my incorrect usage of lemon grass: NOT for curries. Oops.)

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Photo caption: curried crab anyone? (left) the curry paste stall in our local market (right)

In twelve days we leave for Laos where we will backpack from the top of this long, thin country right down to the very bottom. Which means twelve more days to practise relaxing, twelve more days to get more into my book about manifesting abundance and twelve more days to action this in real life on my as-yet-unknown, online Money Abundance Challenge run by my new fellow-worldschooling-mum-of-three-travelling-friend, Natalie Jenkins (EFT expert and coach). Oh, and perhaps I’ll try the odd £6-an-hour coconut oil massage or two for good measure too…

To see where we are on a map, click here!

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